The End of Humanity: Kant and the Death of God

 

As is becoming well known, the exclusion of the animal functions throughout Western philosophy to inscribe “properly” human ends. To begin, however, it is necessary that we concern ourselves with this invariant, as only by way of a rigorous engagement with philosophy might we come to understand finitude and history as the condition for every animal encounter, and thus counter the traditional operation that excludes nonhuman animals by dissolving their singular beings within the perfect identity of immortal, changeless species. Moreover, by distinguishing between two very different conceptions signified by the phrase “the end of man,” we discover that the proper end of man ultimately resides in the rupturing of humanism itself.

Readers familiar with philosophy will no doubt recognise the above reference to Jacques Derrida’s famous lecture “The Ends of Man,” first presented in 1968, wherein Derrida draws attention to the disjunction between the teleological and eschatological “ends” of man, that is, between telos and eskhaton.

Put simply, within the metaphysical tradition telos marks the end in the sense of the completion of man, of man’s end as his highest and most proper accomplishment in a transcendence of finitude that indissociably links metaphysics with humanism. In this way, what awaits humanity is humanity itself, that is, a fully human humanity. At the same time, however, the end of man in the eschatological sense of the destruction or overcoming of the human cannot be divorced from the thinking of the truth of man within this same tradition.

This problematic doubling of ends, suggests Derrida, can be seen most clearly at work in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the end of man as telos cannot come about by way of finite human knowledge, but only by way of the unmixed concepts of pure a priori reason. The end of man, in short, can only take place after the end of man, that is, only when every specifically human experience has been removed. Conversely, however, Kant simultaneously insists that this end is possible only because man is in essence a rational being, that is, because only man as man thinks the end, and in so doing raises himself above and beyond the absence of reason claimed to characterise every other animal. Hence, it is only the specificity of the human that opens up the possibility of the end as telos.

Here, Kant is confronted with an antimony or aporia that must be dealt with: the telos of a fully human humanity demands both the specificity of the human and the eschatological elimination of that specificity. It is an aporia, moreover, which constitutes a rupture within every humanism insofar as every humanism is metaphysical.

Kant attempts to control this aporia with the notion of universal history. He argues that Reason organises the regular, teleological progress of humanity only at the level of the species, guided in advance by nature and indifferent to the free will of individuals. However, individual free will nonetheless serves to ensure the ongoing trial and ordeal of Reason’s telos, and thus the development of man’s original capacities. By contrast, nonhuman animals pursue their “natural,” i.e., irrational, teleology purely by instinct, meaning that the “law-goverened history” of every other species can be identified by a simple “internal or external” examination of any given animal, each of whom is identified with the species as a whole.[1]

Here we see how “the animal” functions as the constitutive outside of the properly human. On the one hand, humans cannot proceed by instinct, as this would reduce them to “mere” animals. Hence, man must have free will.On the other, the idea that man acts without an innate, divinely-instilled telos is simply unbearable for Kant, not least because this would reduce humans to something less than “mere” animals. This is Kant’s first antimony: the simultaneous free will and machinic programming of humanity. Hence, man’s free will must be subordinated to the guiding hand of history. Only then might man be free while simultaneously assuming his God-given superiority above the mechanical ordering of animal existence.

For this reason, humans alone are finite. Given the empirical specificity of every freely willing human individual, she or he cannot therefore be identical to the species, as Kant claims to be the case for all other animals. Instead, death is necessary to ensure that the germs of reason “implanted by nature in our species” not be squandered by foolish individuals but be passed along through the “incalculable series of generations,” guaranteeing the progress of universal history (43). Nonhuman animals, however, have no need of finitude, and no death in any real sense. Rather an animal is only the species, each example being identical to every other of the same species. Hence, if a particular animal ceases to live, nothing has been lost. An animal, in short, cannot die. Only humanity, while immortal as a species, consists of mortal individuals.

This conflict between selfish mortality and selfless immortality, Kant continues, is the motor constituting society, which is thus only ever human – other animals being ontologically incapable of a separation of individual and group interests. While Kant goes on to argue that bourgeois capitalist society in fact constitutes the divine vehicle to realise the telos of humanity, this should not distract us from our initial problematic, that of the teloseskhaton aporia that this idea of universal history hopes to circumvent.

As we have seen, the movement of history in general, that is, universal history at the level of the species, must once again bracket out every specific human experience. At the same time, however, universal history is for Kant necessarily human history, depending upon the gradual transformation of an incalculable series of specific individual moments. In other words, the divinely-ordained completion of humanity demands the transcendence of human finitude, a transcendence which at the same time has human finitude as its very condition. Here, the same telos-eskhaton aporia quickly reestablishes itself, this time at the heart of historicity itself.[2]

The positing of the telos of a fully human humanity, the continuous but gradual perfection of the species, requires as its condition that every individual human being dies, destroyed in an eschatological moment of transformative limit. Returning to our specific focus, what does this discussion of the ends of the human offer for an encounter with animals?

Put simply, it offers a specific example of how traditional philosophy must exclude other animals in order to inscribe “properly” human ends, that is, to circumvent the intolerability of purposelessness and godlessness. At base, the exclusion of other animals throughout Western philosophy enables the fragile human ego to deal with the anxiety of cosmological insignificance, producing instead reassuring myths of universal importance. With Kant’s particular ideology, moreover, we begin to better understand the importance of finitude and historicity for any thinking encounter with animals.

Finitude, as we have seen, is the condition for history and for the fulfilment of humanity as reasoning being. It thus comes as no surprise to find that, throughout Western philosophy, other animals are somehow reduced to immortality as a result. Our first task is thus to consider how this paradoxical reduction to divine status is accomplished, as this is intimately connected to that economy which opens the space for a noncriminal putting to death. This economy, which I have no hesitation calling genocidal, depends not simply upon the exclusion of “the animal” from “the human,” but simultaneously upon the finite bodies of nonhuman animals being paradoxically constructed as undying (be that as untouched by the Fall into self-awareness or as genetically-determined automata). By this I mean that “the animal,” functioning as both homogeneous category and constitutive outside of “the human,”  is necessarily defined as lacking the possibility of death and thus as sharing a transparent pathic communication.

The choice of the term “ideology” is not fortuitous: the claim that nonhuman animals lack individual deaths is indeed precisely an ideology, one which, as Carol Adams notes, “ontologises animals as usable” (Neither Man Nor Beast, 15). Moreover, the ideology of the undying animal must be understood as an entanglement of both material and symbolic economies. The “question of the animal,” in other words, is a question of the literal rendering of animals’ bodies, and at once a demand which infinitely exceeds the democratic order founded upon, and conserved by, the semantics of an agent-centered subjectivity and of the sovereign human subject of rights and duties.

While the kettle logic undergirding Martin Heidegger’s hugely influential philosophy is essential to grasping this process, for the moment it is sufficient to note that, with “the animal” thus constituted as both undying and transparently pathic, the murder of a given nonhuman animal becomes ontologically impossible, even as corpses pile up in exponentially increasing numbers. Our initial question is thus clear: do nonhuman animals “have” finitude? And, if it is indeed undeniable that all animals do in fact die, what does this mean as regards thinking encounter with animals?

 

Infamously, in The Gay Science Nietzsche declares the death of God. While this death undoubtedly occurs in time – with Kant on one side of the fire break, Darwin and Nietzsche on the other – this is not an event that can be simply consigned to history, but is rather one to which we must continue to attend. For us here, it concerns the very future of Kant: what becomes of of the ends of mankind following the demise of the divine?

With the death of God, philosophy is forced from the pale pre-dawn of Kantianism: humanity must leave behind its hubristic myths of transcendence, jolted from its childish dreams of a divinely ordained end (telos). No longer concealed behind the linear teleology of universal history, evolution reveals itself as an infinitely diverse multiplicity of trajectories and transformations. With Nietzsche, the end ceases to be that of a fully human humanity and becomes instead immanent to the creativity of existence itself. Such is the eschatological moment of delirious destruction (eskhaton). Requiring neither divine telos nor human privilege, the death of God thus irredeemably explodes the illusory boundary dividing culture from nature. Ultimately, humanism – theological and secular – necessitates its own demise.

Things do not end here, however. Rather, it still remains necessary to consider the further critique of humanism proposed by structuralism. This critique, as Derrida notes, consists neither in restoring meaning to the metaphysical system as ordered by telos, nor in simply destroying meaning and thereby leaving only that dismal reign of chance so unbearable for Kant. Instead, writes Derrida, “it is a question of determining the possibility of meaning on the basis of a ‘formal’ organization which in itself has no meaning” (“The Ends of Man” 134). The structuralist critique, in other words, centres on transformations in the conditions that produce meaning, and it is both within and outside this anti-humanist space of the structure, at the very limit of sense or meaning, that the eschatolgical encounter takes place. Not, however, as restoration or destruction, but as invention and revaluation.

Thinking such encounters, however, must first and foremost come to terms with a danger inherent in language, with “language” broadly construed here as a species-specific way of being. Insofar as it must “ceaselessly reinstate the new terrain on the oldest ground,” language can never free itself from the risk of repeating precisely that which it aims to critique (Derrida “The Ends of Man” 135). Language, in other words, is at once the condition of transformative critique and that which necessarily entraps us, forcing us in a certain way to remain always on the same terrain, to always move along the same path. Here, we discover the return of our original aporia, eskhaton once again constrained by telos, only now all the delusions of anthropocentric grandeur have been excised.

In direct contrast to the movement of exclusion characterising the genocidal economy, the route to be taken, following both Nietzsche and Derrida, must henceforth lead us to think creatively with animals from within this originary aporia of shared existence.

To think this return without end it is thus necessary to give death to other living beings. Only the giving of a death has the potential to interrupt the brutal economy of genocide. While it perhaps sounds simple, to include other animals within the realm of the finite has explosive consequences, not least for all those animals, human and nonhuman, currently being exploited to death all over the globe. Indeed, to give death means never having the authority to put life to death.

 


[1] “Idea for a Universal History,” 42

[2] The distinguishing within “history” of historicity and historiology was first proposed by Heidegger in Being and Time. At its most basic, historicity refers to the movement of time, whereas historiology refers the discursive construction of History as a discipline.

 

References

Adams, Carol J. Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals (New York: Continuum, 1995).

Derrida, Jacques “The Ends of Man” in Margins of Philosophy trans. Alan Bass (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 109-136.

Heidegger, Martin Being and Time trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962).

Kant, Immanuel Critique of Pure Reason trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 1996).

Kant, Immanuel “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” in Political Writings 2nd Ed. Trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 41-63.

Nietzsche, Friedrich The Gay Science trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).

Nietzsche, Friedrich The Will to Power trans. Walter Kaufmann & R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968).

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About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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